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Your customers are your company. For every one interaction your company knows about today, there are hundreds and thousands more that are already happening among customers, influencers, and prospects.

With the revolution in social technologies, customers are now in control of the conversation. That may seem like a daunting proposition, but there are key steps you can take to engage with that customer network—and therein lies the opportunity.

Despite having spent a great deal of time and effort building, managing, and analyzing your corporate website, customers and prospects demand ever greater levels of interactivity. And they want not only more interactivity with you but also more access and engagement with one another.

That means managing your brand has become increasingly difficult. Though we've all been very cognizant of key areas such as search results, customer experience, and Web leads, 2010 is clearly highlighting a new imperative: We need to engage with our customers and prospects—or risk losing them.

One of the most powerful, proven ways to build your brand and customer network is through online communities. Enterprises (global B2C and B2B brands) are identifying and engaging customers who willingly share insights, help solve support issues, and drive word-of-mouth marketing on their behalf.

A good example is the AT&T Wireless community. On a daily basis, thousands of people sign onto AT&T's forum to discuss details about the AT&T Wireless network, opportunities for improvement, rate plans and features, and how to maximize the capabilities of their mobile devices. 

Companies such as AT&T recognize that if they do not create an environment for such discussions, they just happen elsewhere and so can't be moderated and will not help with search-engine optimization (SEO).

By developing its online community, AT&T has seen significant returns in the areas of ideation—ways to improve products and services, and promotion—increased sales, higher customer-retention rates, and lower customer-support costs.

Moreover, people can get answers quickly; and by knowing the reputation of other members, they know whom they can trust.

Another company, FICO (formerly known as Fair Isaac), provides an example of the measurable benefits to building your customer network. The company recorded dramatic customer-service improvements (pdf) from the success of its customer communities: Call volume to call centers decreased after rising more than 20% in the previous years, all while business volumes were increasing; even more compelling was that average customer spending jumped 66% after joining the community! 

In 2010, customer communities are going mainstream across all industry verticals as organizations as varied as Caterpillar, Best Buy, and the US Small Business Administration have already discovered the transformative impact on the customer experience in their own communities.

Recent research conducted by Deloitte, Beeline Labs, and the Society for New Communications Research, "2009 Tribalization of Business Survey" found that the top business objectives of online communities are as follows: 

  • Increase word-of-mouth (38%)
  • Increase customer loyalty (34%)
  • Increase brand awareness (30%)
  • Improve idea generation (29%)
  • Improve the quality of customer support (23%)

Whether folks are coming to your website to read about products and services, complete a purchase or an upgrade, obtain customer support, or find out where you're located, you have invested to get them there. Now you need to focus on the next step—how to get them to return, engage, help others, and help you innovate.

Here are the most proven methods for growing and maintaining your customer network:

  1. Use a robust reputation-management system. Communities are not just a place to view information. You've got to know who you can trust based on community feedback. In addition, it will help you quickly figure out who your brand advocates are and encourage your most knowledgeable customers to frequently participate.
  2. Encourage repeat visits. Create areas where they can return within the community, such as a private lounge where only those with similar reputations can go and participate. Provide contests, feedback, or ideation areas.
  3. Promote early and often. It's critical that everyone knows about the community and can easily navigate there from any place on your website. Businesses will find their communities to be one of the most visited Web areas.
  4. Multichannel accessibility—mobile. Make sure your community can be easily viewed and used from any mobile phone. Communities are not just for when you're at your desk. People use communities when shopping at the store, traveling, or grabbing a cup of coffee.
  5. Pay close attention to all types of visitors. In particular, consider those non-active users or "lurkers"—people who visit the community, view information, and move along and don't participate in the discussion. Have your team review ways to engage with new customers and potential members of the community.
  6. Focus on search results. SEO is critical to your success. Managing the customer network on your domain will lead to far better results than if those conversations take place elsewhere. A holistic SEO strategy will help your customers and your extended business network find you when they're searching for answers and ideas.

Finally, the key to managing a successful community program is measurement. According the survey noted above, the top two analytics for measuring success are (1) number of active users (34%), and (2) how often people post/comment (32%).

But success must go deeper to ensure people return to the community. You should evaluate a composite index of community components, including members, content, traffic, responsiveness, interaction, and liveliness.

The principles above will be best leveraged when corporate programs are designed with an energetic, cross-functional team of folks responsible for marketing, selling, and supporting and retaining your customers.

It's critical that you provide a holistic customer experience that takes advantage of all potential touch points with your customers. The result will be higher returns for your company and clear methods for building your customer network to thrive in today's social landscape.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
image of Dan Ziman

Dan Ziman is CMO of LeanData, a provider of lead management software for account-based sales and marketing strategies.

LinkedIn: Dan Ziman

Twitter: @lostintheflog